Understanding the current iteration of the two-decade long North Korean crisis is not easy. It is, for what of a better word, complicated.
Furthermore, the fact is that it has finally imploded while Donald Trump is President. “Of all the presidents in all the world, why did you have to start a North Korean crisis with him…?” This is not an administration that lends itself to level analysis. And nor is the topic, for that matter. Initially, there was much noise about Trump’s mishandling of the situation, with many western media outlets implying – if not outright assigning – responsibility to him for the crisis. “Trump’s Latest North Korea could have “apocalyptic” consequences” said the Huffington Post. Salon.com warned of “Right-wing media” beating the war drums on North Korea, and Politico warned us that “Trump’s ‘fire and fury’ rhetoric plays into North Korea’s hands”, while simultaneously reassuring us that Trump’s North Korea strategy was much like Obama’s (because it relied on sanctions and pressure).
To make matters even more confusing, North Korean rhetoric and negotiation style are extreme versions of those found in the West. Everything is impossible, until suddenly it is not. Nothing is possible, until the Dear Leader says it is. Every promise is as good as it needs to be and no further. North Korea’s negotiating tactics, as best illustrated by Scott Snyder in his notable work, Negotiating on the Edge: North Korean Negotiating Behaviour tactics, are often designed to keep North Korea’s larger opponent off-balance and second-guessing their objectives. Ambiguity is a friend to North Korean diplomats, clarity the enemy. Rather than searching for an acceptable position, maximalist demands are usually trialled at the start of negotiations, both to test the opponent and to acquire the best-possible returns. Perhaps with some instinctive feel for this, Trump has brought an interesting strategy to bear.
Read more in the ISPI.